By Kate Howlett

PhD student, University of Cambridge

Twitter: @k_howlett

Prof Charlotte Burns (credit- Andy Suggitt)

Kate Howlett reports back from the BES Conservation Group workshop held on 20th February 2019 at Charles Darwin House.

Last month some 50 early-career researchers (ECRs) gathered in London for a workshop which considered the question: ‘What do early career ecologists see as the risks and opportunities of Brexit, and what can they do about them?’.

The day-long event drew a diverse audience of Master’s students, PhD students, Post-docs and other conservation professionals early on in their careers. Given the chaos that had been unfolding in Westminster over the previous couple of months, we were all in search of some certainty, so as the impressive line-up of plenary speakers kicked things off, we crossed our fingers and pulled out our notebooks.

Plenary speakers

The first speaker was Dame Georgina Mace, Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems at UCL, who spoke about science and science policy in the EU. She delivered an overview of what the EU does for science in the UK and where we stand to lose out after Brexit, covering what she saw as three key areas over which the EU has influence: money, people and environmental regulation.

The second speaker was Brendan Costelloe, BES Policy Manager, who gave a whistle-stop tour of environmental policy in the UK and EU, explaining how the different levels of authority work together to produce environmental legislation. In essence, the EU has environmental competence over air, water and wildlife, and this is exerted in the form of directives, which must then be transposed into domestic law. Replacing these directives post-Brexit will be Defra’s biggest job over the next few years.

Fittingly, as Brendan was in the middle of explaining how the politics behind this might work, my phone buzzed with a BBC News notification informing me that three Conservative MPs had just resigned their party membership, joining the eight Labour MPs who had done so earlier in the week! It was a timely reminder of the chaos unfolding in Westminster as we tried our best to get to grips with it all.

The third and final speaker was Professor Charlotte Burns, Co-Chair of the Brexit & Environment group. Charlotte provided a thorough history of Brexit and the environment, starting off with an overview of exactly what had happened to get us to this point, just in case anyone had given up trying to keep up with it all over the last three years.

All three speakers did a brilliant job of packing complex ideas and a lot of information into palatable, bite-sized talks. A commonality between all three was the caveat ‘depending on the Brexit outcome’. It was becoming clear that the unknowns surrounding ‘Brexit Day’ were likely to affect science funding, collaborations and policy in whole range of ways. We broke for coffee feeling much better informed about Brexit, even if we still didn’t know what would happen next.

Brexit Direction (credit Pixabay)

Over to us ECRs

After coffee, the rest of the day was opened up to the floor to discuss the ins and outs of various questions relating to Brexit. First off, we split into smaller groups to share our thoughts, before a more free-form afternoon session, in which we wrote our ideas on sticky notes and placed them on flip charts dotted around the room – an ingenious way to stimulate discussion and debate.

The following list of topics we covered brings home just how broad the impact of Brexit is likely to be:

  1. What have been the successes and failures of EU environmental policy?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the 25 Year Environmental Plan?
  3. How would a ‘public goods’ system work in principle?
  4. What will Brexit mean for our future careers and science funding?
  5. How should the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) be reformed?
  6. How should we transform UK environmental policy?

Debate blossomed in the later afternoon session, especially around the flip chart on the agricultural and fisheries policies, which had drawn in a large crowd. The group were debating whether to prioritise land-sharing or land-sparing – and what ecological policy event would be complete without this debate?

Panel discussion

The day was wrapped up by Georgina Mace and Charlotte Burns discussing the main points raised throughout the workshop, working round each flip chart in turn. (Brendan had had to rush off to Cardiff to present evidence to the Welsh Assembly – a great excuse!)

First up was a question about the careers in environmental policy being generated by the Brexit process: would these jobs appear in abundance now only to die off over the next few years, or would the need for more people working in departments like Defra persist over the longer term? The short answer is – you’ve guessed it – it ‘depends on the Brexit outcome’ and how long the aftermath takes to sort out. Regardless, there will certainly be a lot of environmental regulation that needs shaping, monitoring and adapting ad infinitum, and ecologists will be central to this process.

Next was a question about future funding for ecological research-based outside of the UK or EU: would this be affected by Brexit? The consensus was that the UK Government values international collaboration and research and is keen to continue funding it and treating it as a priority. But what that means in terms of numbers remains to be seen.

The final questioner asked how involved the National Farmers Union (NFU) should be in influencing and informing environmental policy in the UK post-Brexit. Both speakers agreed that groups such as the NFU must be consulted and integral to the process. The NFU has a science research arm, and they represent the views of a group of people whose livelihoods are inherently linked with the environment. Farming represents just one of many possible land uses, so we must remember that other lobbying groups with different priorities, such as the RSPB, must be listened to as well.

Take-home messages

The key takeaway messages can be boiled down into the three main areas of EU influence over early-career ecologists in the UK:

  1. Funding for research is likely to suffer once the UK leaves the EU. We are a net beneficiary in terms of funding for scientific research. Although the UK Government has pledged to match our current contributions to the EU funding pots, it is unlikely that this will replace the amount of money we get out, given the UK’s current success at winning a disproportionate share of the competitive funding on offer.
  2. Collaboration is likely to become more challenging. Science progresses through cooperation between research groups all over the world, who share knowledge and work together towards common goals. As the UK leaves the EU, this is likely to be made more difficult, given that there will be many more obstacles to mobility.
  3. Environmental regulation is set for a vast overhaul. This presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the areas of EU environmental policy which aren’t perfect, such as the CAP. Not only does this mean that there is a lot at stake for environmental policy in the UK, but also that there will be plenty of jobs available for ecologists in policy to help execute this.

The day was a wonderful opportunity to meet researchers in similar fields who are also concerned about what Brexit means for their futures. Whilst I didn’t come away with all the answers (which would have been a miracle!), I certainly left much better informed about where we can expect to see change and what that change might look like under different possible scenarios. I gained a much better understanding of UK environmental policy, how the EU has influenced it and where the risks and opportunities lie. For anyone interested in science policy or how the political situation can affect ecologists’ futures, the workshop was a winner, and I’d highly recommend attending similar events in the future. In the meantime, check out the #ECRsChatBrexit hashtag on Twitter for more on what we talked about.

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